We're all VIPs now

The latest marketing wheeze is to treat customers as though they're very important people, with special discounts, luxury lounges and little perks. But are we really getting the red-carpet treatment?
  • @aliceazania

Before we begin, I'd like to make one thing clear: I am a Very Important Person.

I know this because my wireless bill tells me so. I am a VIP customer – and, while I'm not quite sure what this accolade entitles me to, who am I to quibble? At any rate, my local coffee shop agrees. I'm a VIP there, too, and I have the little card to prove it. I'm a regular, in other words, but with added cachet. When I pay for my decaf Americano, I like to flash those initials to whoever happens to be around. I'm Very Important, and I like it.

If I wanted, I could be a VIP traveller. It's not hard: most airports offer access to a VIP Lounge to those willing to pay an extra £20. Last year Virgin Holidays announced its Rockstar Service that essentially meant that you too, could travel like, well, U2. Come festival season, opportunities for VIP status abounded.

Glastonbury offers VIP tickets, available for ordinary punters to buy. So does Wireless. So does the Isle of Wight. So long as you're willing to pay a bit extra, they're yours. And if you're heading out on the town, remember to visit viplounge.co.uk to book your place in the exclusive seats. Anyone can be a VIP, you see, if they really want.

Once upon a time, in the dark recesses of history, those three letters represented something different. To be a VIP didn't mean paying a little extra for nicer camping. It wasn't bestowed automatically, along with your custom. Being a VIP meant one of a few things. Either you were famous, or you'd done something distinguished: broken a world record, saved a life. Or you made decisions – decisions about things like government, or funding. Very Important Decisions.

Now we're all at it, joining the shorter queue and paying for extras. It's not hard to see why – the clue's in the name. Who doesn't like the thought of being “important”? It's flattery at its most rudimentary.

“Everyone wants to feel special from time to time,” agrees Danielle Crook, Vodafone's Director of Brand Marketing. Like my local café, Vodafone operates a VIP service, complete with perks: the chance, if your name is drawn, to access to otherwise inaccessible events.

As it happens, you don't need to do anything to become a Vodafone VIP. If you're one of its 19 million customers, you're automatically eligible if you sign up online. But – here's the thing – can 19 million people really be that important? After all, when we're all receiving “special” treatment, it just becomes normal treatment. How much of all this is just,well, spin?

“Businesses have always told customers that they're special – now they're looking for a way to go beyond that,” says Joe Cushnan, author of Retail Confidential. And, despite our willingness to embrace the VIP concept, Cushnan isn't convinced that we're reaping rewards. “People like extra attention – but there's not really any evidence that they're getting it. It's a ploy. In many ways, service in the UK is at an all-time low.”

Of course, there's nothing wrong with broadening the feelgood factor that the label gives. And if a few of the comforts that used to be the preserve of an elite do trickle down to the rest of us, so much the better. But you do have to wonder – if we're all VIPs, then what of lucky folk who used to own that label? Have they become something else – VVIPs maybe? All the signs point that way.

You increasingly see it at nightclubs. The VIP area has filled up with bankers and accountants, people who've either bought their way in or been given it through a corporate sponsorship scheme, but the VVips have migrated elsewhere. Even the most exclusive of nightclubs – Movida, Maddox, the Box – boast private areas, ultra-VIP suites, away from the scrum. At festivals and gigs it's the same story, with the masses flocking to the VIP booths, new enclaves of luxury have sprung up. At Wireless, you'd have been hard pressed to spot many celebrities is the regular backstage area. They were behind a picket fence enjoying complimentary refreshments. At last month's V festival, the go-to spot for the elite was the ultra-plush Virgin Media Louder Lounge.

“What we aim to do is offer a proper hospitality exercise – something that's not run-of-the mill – whether that's to say thank you to people who've worked with us or who've helped us or whatever,” explains Virgin's Simon Dornan.

The area has become renowned for its pampering: this year, lucky guests and celebrities were treated to complimentary food and drink, manicures and makeovers from Mac. There was a cocktail bar hosted by Kensington Roof Gardens and a karaoke tent sponsored by SingStar.

So far, Virgin has resisted the temptation to sell places. It is, if you like, VIP in the old-school sense: glamorous but not commodified.

Says Dornan: “If you corporatise it, it's not the same thing.”

If anything, it might just defeat the point.

The Gold Standard of VIP treatment

Brook's Gentleman's Club

Post-phone hacking, James Murdoch's application to Brooks's – which was first proposed more than two years ago - was said to have stalled. Over the years, the St James's club has welcomed George IV, William Wilberforce and Alan Clark.

Coutts Bank

It may be owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland (and therefore by us) but Coutts remains accessible only to the very rich. Home to the Queen's savings, would-be clients must have at least £500,000 of “disposable funds”to deposit.

The British Airways Concorde Lounge

Not even Gold Executive Club card holders can get in here. Heathrow's Concorde Lounge boasts private cabanas and an Elemis spa. Expect to see Rod Stewart admiring the bar's panoramic views.

The Tower Bar At The Sunset Tower Hotel

It's not about membership. Nobody gets in to this Hollywood institution without a nod from Dmitri Dmitrov, maitre d' and confidante of Angelica Huston, Jennifer Aniston and Johnny Depp.